The English Soap Company – good clean business
From starting in a kitchen in 2000, to now employing nearly 50 people in the heart of the Wealden countryside, the award-winning English Soap Company has grown to become one of the UK’s premier soap manufacturers, with a large international presence in the US, Australia and even Japan, winning awards such as Export Award at the Insider Made in the South East Awards 2020.
What does it take? Oliver Butts, Managing Director, reveals all including its collaboration with world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
The English Soap Company
Finding the right mould
Founder of The English Soap Company and Oliver’s father, Bob Butts had a background in computing. This earned him a PhD and enabled him to build a successful business by working on innovative programmes for industrial control systems. After selling the business, Bob was looking for a new challenge, and as Oliver goes on to explain: ‘He discovered some old soap moulds, and wondered how easy it was to make soap. I used to see him working refining and enjoying the experimentation, with the kitchen looking like an alchemist’s laboratory.’
‘He was a perfectionist. He bought over 150 different moulds and experimented with the shapes to find out what was commercially viable. My dad was finding a way to perfect soap. What perfumes, what processes work… even different sizes. What market is there for a dinosaur-shaped bar? It was all R&D in my dad’s own way.’
‘My dad’s ambition was to launch his own brand, and it took time to find the right combinations. He realised that to make soap properly, you need to buy some industrial equipment. Small scale is cute, but to do it properly and make it viable, he moved the business from the kitchen to a modern unit in Waldron, near Heathfield.’
Cleaning up the market
By combining modern technology with traditional methods, Bob Butts had found a way to create premium quality soap and build a successful business. The English Soap Company was founded on the principle of creating the best product for its customers, and in the world of soap that meant good packaging, great fragrances and competitive prices.
Oliver came into the business at a critical time in the late 2000s, taking on the role of Managing Director, working closely with his father, mother and his wife Ailsa. ‘At the beginning, we found big demand for English products within America, Australia and New Zealand, which helped us grow, but both with English Soap Company and Christina May (its white label manufacturing arm), or offer is about the entire experience, understanding our customers and exceeding their expectations
‘When we began this business, we didn’t know a soap decorated with the Sussex countryside would sell better than one with Big Ben in the UK, but vice versa internationally. When we entered the Taiwanese market, did we expect Frankincense and Myrrh, a Christmas best seller, to become a year-round success in Asia? No, but that is a part of the fun.
‘It takes work to adapt and find markets, but the quality of our product and our family values that ensure we have new and repeat business.’
Based in Waldron, the English Soap Company has grown its manufacturing base from a team of two to a team of 45. Being local has its benefits, but critically, having space to grow has allowed the business to solidify and increase output. According to Oliver: ‘Things run at a nice pace around here, and my family have always been based in the local area.
‘Logistically speaking, sending a pallet of soap from rural East Sussex isn’t that much different from sending it from an industrial estate in Croydon.’
In 2019, The English Soap Company secured a deal worth over £100,000 to export to Japan and grew its turnover four times over a seven-year period for both Christina May and The English Soap Company brands. ‘In terms of growing, the important thing is having the right people around you, both in management and local talent, making this a great company for our employees as well,’ Oliver added. For their efforts, they have won numerous awards for their exporting strategy and their international growth, including winning Export Award from Insider Made In The South East awards 2020.
Bubbling up audiences
The English Soap Company also experienced issues surrounding the pandemic in 2020: ‘Covid-19 made it difficult to communicate to our customers,’ Oliver admitted, ‘No more trade shows or fairs. Marketing our new products to business customers was difficult, and with affected overseas customers, we had to furlough some of our employees’.
The English Soap Company did not allow this to become a hinderance and invested time creating new soap products and hand sanitisers, and recapturing demand through other means. Unlike many brands that changed from B2B to direct to consumer, the management team decided to create a website to act as a showcase for the entire brand experience, which launched in June 2020.
A bar for all seasons
The English Soap Company has always had the room to explore and expand its ranges and collections to suit every taste, allowing for exploration by its team with a culture of innovation.
Oliver commented: ‘There is a lot of creativity in soap. One of my favourite collections is the Wonderful Animal Collection, and I loved developing the soap and the artwork for the series. We had this idea about trying to get unconventional sea creatures involved. We could not figure it out, and we came up with the truly imaginative idea of an octopus throwing coyts onto narwhal tusks, and our customers bought into the concept. It’s a fun happy bar of soap!’
Crafting its hand-finished bars from pure vegetable oils, The English Soap Company’s products have always been vegan and sustainable by default, using paper packaging for its bars, and, when having to, using PCR plastic packaging made from recycled and sustainable processes.
‘We never shouted about our sustainability at the beginning; we just stuck to what we believed since the start; that it is not the main point, but a natural accepted progression. We are proud to be an ethical and responsible company.’
‘Soap by default is a utilitarian product, but soap doesn’t have to be a supermarket product. It really can be a gift and a great product. At the end of the day, you need an eye for what sells. Some fragrances work better with different demographics, and different packaging may work with other ones. The English Soap Company is about creating a special experience, and the quality creates the repeat customers.’
Liquid assets and diversifying
The English Soap Company is not just creating traditional soap bars, the company has diversified into creating soy wax candles, body care liquids, therapeutic creams, and Eaux De Toilette.
With the help of Locate East Sussex, the company was awarded an ESI grant from East Sussex County Council to assist the acceleration of its business expansion and automation of its production line.
Most recently, The English Soap Company has been investing into new lines based around hand sanitisers and liquid soaps, with its exclusive Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew range leading the way. The company continues to reinvest in the business, looking to expand its space further later this year to make room for a new soap line and new machinery to meet demand which is continuing to grow.